The Universal Notebook: The Tao of cooking

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Maine has become a foodie Mecca, so it is no surprise that once again a large contingent of Maine chefs and restaurants have been nominated for James Beard Foundation Awards, the Pulitzer Prize of the culinary world. Last year there were nine nominees, this year 11.

My favorite among this year’s candidates is Cara Stadler, chef-owner of Tao Yuan in Brunswick and Bao Bao dumpling house in Portland. Stadler was nominated as Rising Star Chef both last year and this. Odds are she will win this year.

Tao Yuan, which means “peach garden” in Chinese, is the crowning jewel of an unexpectedly international Brunswick culinary scene that features two Indian, two Vietnamese, two Japanese, two Mexican, one Mediterranean and one German restaurant, as well as a handful of good American-style delis and cafes.

Carolyn and I spent New Year’s Eve at Tao celebrating the passing of the old and the arrival of new with Stadler’s annual New Year’s Eve tasting menu with wine pairings. For a Maine native who grew up on grilled-cheese sandwiches and creamed chipped beef on toast, spending three hours at an eight-course evening meal of Chinese-American fusion delicacies is an exotic treat.

Tao’s New Year’s menu started off with Winter Point oysters followed by yellowfin tuna sashimi and steak tartare with kimchi and umeboshi mustard. The dim sum course featured har gao dumplings and pork belly buns. When I was growing up, pork bellies were something to invest in, not eat.

What I think of as the hot entrees included seared scallops, aged duck breast and slow-cooked rack of lamb. The scallops were possibly the only dish I might have eaten growing up in the 1950s.

For dessert there was a frozen confection I had never heard of and could not tell you exactly what it was – frozen Buddha’s Hand parfait with rose poached strawberries, mango and pistachio. Buddha’s Hand is apparently a citrus fruit that looks like a squid impersonating a lemon.

The raising of my culinary consciousness probably began 39 years ago in February 1979, when I read John McPhee’s landmark “Brigade de Cuisine” in The New Yorker. McPhee caused quite a stir with his portrait of Otto, a pseudonymous chef running a farmhouse inn somewhere in the New York City area. McPhee made the restaurant and the food sound so enticing that readers scoured New York and New Jersey to track down Otto, who turned out to be Allen Lieb at the Bull’s Head Inn in Shohola, Pennsylvania.

McPhee’s article was the first time I realized that culinary artists could be as creative as artists in other mediums. These days, of course, good chefs are celebrities in the state’s creative economy. Maine’s past James Beard winners include Sam Hayward, who ran 22 Lincoln in Brunswick in the early days of the locavore movement and is now a partner in both Fore Street and Scales in Portland; two-time Best Chef Northeast Melissa Kelly of Primo, the farm-to-table favorite in Rockland; Rob Evans of Hugo’s and Duckfat fame; Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier, formerly of Arrows in Ogunquit, and Mike Wiley and Andrew Taylor at Eventide Oyster in Portland.

McPhee’s 1979 article also introduced me to the idea of destination restaurants, places, like Otto’s, so special that people would come from hundreds of miles away to eat there. Maine’s latter-day Otto is Erin French, chef-proprietor of the Lost Kitchen in Freedom. Against all odds, French has made a set-menu restaurant in the farm belt back of Belfast into what may be the most sought-after reservation in New England.

French is nominated for a James Beard award in the Best Chef Northeast category this year, but since jurors have to have eaten at any restaurant they vote for, French’s phenomenal success may work against her. When reservations opened last April 1, the Lost Kitchen was bombarded by 10,000 requests for reservations in a single day, prompting this headline in the Boston Globe, “Welcome to the Lost Kitchen, the best Maine restaurant you may never be able to eat at.”

I have learned to eat three-hour meals, but I’m not sure I can stand in line for a year to get into a restaurant, so there is a good chance I may never get to eat at the Lost Kitchen. I did buy French’s book, “The Lost Kitchen: Recipes and a Good Life Found in Freedom, Maine,” as a Christmas present though, so I can enjoy French’s food vicariously.

On March 11, the Lost Kitchen is announcing a new reservation system to deal with the backlog of requests. Somehow I’m imagining something like Maine’s moose lottery.

Hmmm, I wonder what Cara Stadler might do with moose.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.